July 19, 2006
Case Study

How the Georgia Aquarium Sells Nearly 10,000 Tickets Per Day via Ecommerce

SUMMARY: On an average day, 10,000 visitors typically pay $20 each to tour the Georgia Aquarium. That alone is a huge win for a tourist destination that only opened last November.

But here's an even bigger deal -- 93% of tickets are sold online, directly from the Aquarium's Web site.

Plus prior to opening, sell-out fundraising efforts were conducted online. Whether you're in ecommerce entertainment, or drive donations, this MarketingSherpa Case Study should prove inspirational:

The Home Depot Co-founder Bernie Marcus understands the power of customer convenience in marketing.

So, way back in 2001 when he and his wife, Billi, decided to become the primary benefactors of a public aquarium for Atlanta, first they registered the domain name GeorgiaAquarium.org.

Over the next five years of committee meetings, fundraising and building, the Web remained at the forefront of marketing plans. Why not, the newly-formed marketing team wondered, see whether convenient ecommerce could be used for everything from individual donations to visitor tickets?

Why make people mail in donation checks, or stand in line at ticket windows later on, when they could just point and click?

But, how do you get loads of traffic for a fundraising Web site of the unbuilt Aquarium? And, how can you train the public, who are used to buying on site tickets at amusement parks and zoos, to go online instead when the Aquarium opened?


As Kristie Cobb, Director of Membership & Annual Programs explains, "Online was brought in a year and a half before we launched." Here's the four-step plan the team used (plus, see creative samples below):

Step #1. Limited "Teaser Site" with email offer launched October 2004

The Web site's job was to begin building a relationship with visitors that would lead to donations and ticket purchases down the road. That meant sticky content from the start. In addition, the site needed enough content and inbound links to begin the long haul out of the search engine sandbox into high visibility.

"Coming soon" or "under construction" pages are worst practices in Web design -- visitors and search engine spiders leave quickly.

However, Bernie Marcus knew the power of PR -- he didn't want to load the site with every piece of information from the start but rather allow limited tidbits from time to time to build the story. He strictly disallowed the staff from any mention of the biggest news -- three Beluga whales -- on the Web or in PR until two weeks before opening.

Therefore, the team got creative, digging up scraps of information that Atlanta residents and aquarium fans around the world would find fascinating. Examples -- an ever-evolving series of aerial photos of the Aquarium's construction, as well as stories about each of the lesser fish as they arrived.

Plus, the Web site featured a 'join the email news list' call to action to start garnering names for future promotions.

Step #2. Fishscales online donation appeal launches Feb. 14, 2005

Just as other building committees use named bricks for fundraising, the Aquarium decided to build a wall of lit-up glass bricks called 'fishscales.' Each scale would contain the name of an individual donor.

"Atlanta's a big drive-time city. It's got one of the longest commutes in the US," says Cobb. So, in addition to emailing a fishscales offer to everyone on the site list, the Aquarium also launched a full-out radio campaign. "A lot of the stations did spots with Bernie. They'd have him come on the show."

The team made fishscales' ecommerce back end as appealing as possible by adding an animated Flash interface where the donor could see how what they typed in would actually appear on the 'scale.' (Note: This is something Apple's ecommerce team also uses to make buying an iPod from them directly online more appealing.)

Last, but not least, the team reviewed Web analytics for the first 24 hours of Fishscales' selling to determine if and where on the site visitors went to immediately after making the donation. Then they redesigned that 'thank-you page' at the end of the ecommerce process to contain links to the most appealing pages.

This way, donors would continue to be educated and involved in the Aquarium's site rather than being dead-ended.

Step #3. Pre-launch annual passes offered online Oct. 12, 2005

Six weeks prior to opening day, and amid a growing volume of launch PR, the team decided to send out an email campaign offering annual passes to the general public.

This was a bold move given that no one had yet toured the Aquarium. Would the public buy passes online site-unseen?
The pricing was careful -- just a little over twice the posted daily ticket cost. Plus, pre-opening pass holders were entitled to visit the Aquarium two days *before* official launch.

Step #4. All-new Web site launches

In the meantime, the Web team were busy rebuilding the site completely in time for opening day. In fact, they considered the new site as an *entirely* different site because its goal was so very different from the first site's. The new site's goals were in order:

- sell "timed" tickets (a benefit ensuring you never stood in
line or fought your way through a too-full Aquarium)
- allow passholders to reserve timed tickets
- book group events
- gather donations

>From initial wirefame to the final site, every aspect of the navigational design was built around these goals. In fact, the ticket purchasing form was built in as an integral part of the left vertical navigation bar appearing on every single page of the site.

Prior to launch, the team invited selected members of the public to a computer lab to use the site as part of a consumer usability study. Then, based on feedback, the designers add more "click here" hotlinks than you find on most sites today.

Plus, any possible bumps in the shopping cart were smoothed out to provide the easiest possible experience and reduce potential abandonment.


Since the Aquarium officially opened Nov. 29, 2005, it’s hosted nearly 2 million visitors, 93% of which purchased their tickets via the Web site. That's an astonishing accomplishment -- and one we're not sure any other similar amusement destination has matched.

The team had hoped to sell 20,000 Fishscales in 2005. However, their estimates were far off. The program sold 35,000 Fishscales and had to be shut down in a little over four months because the wall the scales were destined for simply couldn’t be made any bigger.

The email announcing the annual pass offer got a 72.3% open rate and a 36.7% clickthrough rate. 8,000 passes were sold via ecommerce and phone in the first eight hours of the offer. Subsequently, these pre-opening passes sold out completely. Faced with unexpected demand, the Aquarium had to pull the offer off the site ahead of schedule.

The new site's navigational architecture has proven quite successful. Despite the fact that the site is loaded with plenty of educational and newsy information, more than 90% of incoming site traffic funnels quickly into the reservations and ticketing areas.

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples related to this campaign including Web site evolution and email

SpunLogic -- the interactive marketing agency that built both sites and created the launch email campaign:

Grey Worldwide -- the Aquarium's advertising agency

Able Commerce -- the ecommerce technology which the Web team customized for the Aquarium's shopping cart

Silverpop -- the email broadcast firm that sent the Aquarium's emails

Georgia Aquarium

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